Monday, November 12, 2012

Search Meetings

I thought (with some encouragement from others) that it would be good to talk a bit about our search meetings.  I want to demystify the process if I can, but with the caveat that my experience is limited, and that other places or departments do things differently.  So I'm also going to request that folks with input about how their departments do things differently help out here.

Earlier, I posted some application advice.  I'll take the job description from there for my hypothetical search.   Here was the ad:

Assistant professor of Underwater Basketweaving.
Terminal degree in Underwater Basketweaving or a related field.
Specialization in Deepwater Basketweaving.
Secondary specialization in International Basketweaving or Reed Cultivation.
Ability to teach basic basketweaving.
Strong assets include a commitment to undergraduate teaching, liberal arts, and multicultural basketweaving.

After we've gone through the process of developing our ad and putting the ad in likely places, we sit back a bit and wait for the applications to pile in.  And pile in they do.  We also meet with the campus legal eagle if we haven't already, to talk about the process and make sure we're doing things legally.

One of the jobs of our search chairs is to handle some of the legal stuff, specifically filling out a form for each candidate who isn't hired setting out whatever it is.  For candidates who are somewhat qualified but whom we don't list for further information or interviews, this can be difficult.  For candidates who are totally unqualified, it's a bit easier.

As the applications roll in, we put together some sort of grid.  For this job, it might have a row across the top setting up columns, and then names down a column, so that each candidate gets a row.  We number our candidates by receipt of their application, too.

The grid for this position will have a box for name, degree, deepwater basketweaving, international basketweaving, reed cultivation, basic basketweaving teaching, undergrad teaching, liberal arts, multicultural basketweaving, and then other.  The other category is where we make notes about something that interested us but that doesn't fit somewhere else.

For each candidate, then, we'll fill in their name and number, and then I put what degree and where they got it.  I'll note a person with a degree in water management, and probably put a "no" next to the degree right then.  IF I know the area pretty well, and know that a school is especially strong in that area, I may make a note about that.  Or underline the school, or something.  I may note the title of the dissertation, or make a short version, something like "Radical DWB," or "Lacan and DWB," something so that I'll get a sense of the area and specialization. 

As I read through the letter and CV, I'll fill in the other boxes.  If the person has some publications in reed cultivation, I'll note that in the appropriate box.  If they talk about teaching Asian Basketweaving, I'll make a note of that, and so on.  I tend to put an asterisk in the name box of people I'm really interested in, and a "no" if someone's categorically out.  For people who've impressed me rather less than more, I'll put something in the other box.  My goal is to have some sense of who I really want to interview, and who I'm not interested in interviewing.

What I don't look at: 
Dates of degrees.  It just doesn't strike me unless something's weird in the CV.  If someone's missing 20 years, then I'll notice.  If they've been adjuncting, then I'll note that in their teaching experience, that sort of thing.
Local love.  I don't much care if people are from around here.  I don't discriminate, but I also don't start a cheering section.  I'd rather see other things in a cover letter, but I think that it may matter to some people.
References.  I'm not there yet.

After our application deadline has passed, our committee will have a first meeting.  We'll decide based on how many apps we have how we're going to handle it.  If we had 15 apps, we'd probably move right then to decide who we wanted to interview.  But I've never been on a search here with only 15 apps.

Typically, we'll do something like put applications in stacks.  We may have three or four or five stacks.  Stack one will be for the folks who we all agree we think are our strongest candidates.  Stack five is for the folks who aren't qualified for the job as we've described it.  You may be Stephen Hawking, but if you don't have a degree in Underwater Basketweaving, you're in stack five.  Stack four will be for people who have basic qualifications, but give us a bad vibe.  Maybe their letter didn't talk usefully about necessary things or they really don't have much experience at teaching and don't convince us that doesn't matter.  Stack two is for people we think would do a good job, but we aren't quite as excited to talk to them.  Stack three is for people we think could do the job, but aren't quite there somehow.

Then we'll look at stack one, and if we have enough people, we'll move them all onto the next group.  If we have too few people, we'll look at stack two and move some people to stack one.  Our goal is to get a manageable group to look at references, writing samples, and whatever else we want to ask for or have asked for.

In my experience, if a search committee member is really excited about an application, that one will make stack one even if no one else is really excited.  On some committees, there's a fair bit of agreement about stack one.  On others, there's more discussion.  I'm fortunate in my colleagues that we usually manage to handle this stage well, and tend to get really good candidates into that first stack.

What's the take away message for job applicants here? 

The most important one is that the job letter and CV are our initial cut, so those have to speak to our job in meaningful ways.  We understand that someone might have the wrong school name in an application letter, but if your letter says something really interesting about your multicultural basketweaving experience, and you've got the other qualifications in line, we're going to want you in stack one.

The difficult part is that it's REALLY hard to explain to someone who's writing a letter how to make that letter move from the second stack to the first stack.  It's like explaining to a writing student how to move from an A to a B.  A B paper is going to be fine, good, but there will be something that an A paper does that says "I'm an A paper" while a B paper doesn't.  But how do you explain that?  If I could, I would.

The second take away is that while the job search IS a bit of a crap-shoot, my experience is that decent human beings are doing their best to choose the best candidates based on the evidence in front of them.  I can't guarantee that every single person on every single search committee is ethical and decent, but my colleagues are.  The result is that we hire very few people who aren't good teachers and colleagues and scholars or creative basketweavers compared to the numbers we hire who are.  We certainly aren't just throwing darts at a board or tossing applications down a stairwell.

And this is not to say that everything is always fair and a total meritocracy.  If you went to a crap high school, and could only get into a fourth rate college, then your chances of getting into a really strong grad program are low, and your chances of getting a job are low.  And if you have incredible digital basketweaving experience but we're looking for multicultural experience, then you're unlikely to get our job.  If you haven't got strong support in your program for learning how to write letters and CVs, then your chances of hitting the genre well are lower, too.  If you haven't mastered the art of talking about your work in interesting ways, even if you're totally brilliant, we probably aren't going to put your application in the first stack.  And the fact is, if we have 200 applications, and have 25 in stack one at the end of this meeting, we'll probably never look at the second stack further.  And of those 25 probably excellent applications, we only get to hire one person.  No matter how much we love the second and third candidates, especially, we only get to hire one.

If I could make one thing happen for all job seekers, it would be that a year before they go on the market they get to read at least 20 job letters from a search.  I think that would be a huge education, and I think that's partly why people searching for their second job often sound like great candidates, since they've learned how to make their job letter really stand out.


  1. Every committee I've been on has used a slightly different process, but every one has had an important process point at the end of any big selection: stepping back to review whether the choices just made seemed in line with our evaluation criteria and was anything or anyone overlooked.

    This year, with the support of our AA/EO office, as the search committee chair, I eliminated applications from people with degrees in water management (or MAs in Underwater Basketweaving rather than PhDs). I did have another committee member review the criteria I used for those early eliminations (so we had two sets of eyes on each decision) but it kept the full committee from reading applications from people who were completely not qualified. We did keep in applications from people with degrees in Underwater Basketweaving but with only questionable experience in Deepwater or International basketweaving.

    We used a rubric to rate each candidate along each criteria (akin to you background in Underwater Basketweaving, work in Deepwater, teaching experience, undergrad commitment, multicultural basketweaving experience). I totaled up all the scores several different ways so we could see which candidates were the top 20 for each committee member and how the scores averaged across the committee--I also presented the averages several ways, weighting different columns, just to illustrate what happened with those different calculations.

    We also looked at all the people who failed to make the top 20 of anyone, just to make sure they were not overlooked. We decided to send some immediate rejections, decided to table some other applications while we decided where our top candidates were.

    So every credible applicant got at least a little discussion.

  2. thing that moves letters from a B to A level: doing more than restating the CV. If someone has coordinated a basketweaving seminar for new grad students and lists that on the CV, and then simply repeats that fact in the letter, I don't learn anything new. But if the letter explains what philosophy guided the seminar, or how the materials were selected in order to achieve a particular goal for seminar participants, then I have learned something new.

  3. Thanks, Susan, that's helpful, especially about the letters. At the meeting I'm thinking of here, we went through the whole list of candidates, one at a time, and talked about each a bit.

    But I really like that your group then did a review. That seems useful.

  4. EngLitProf11:49 PM

    This is a very useful post, Bardiac. The search committees on which I’ve served have usually reduced the field to 30-40 applications (from 80 or 100 or 120) before we sit down to discuss files in detail. Choosing eight or ten to interview out of the strongest 30-40 requires a lot of energy, and it is a good idea to get to that point, so I agree with the approach Susan’s department took.

  5. Where I am, the screening committee is separate from the search committee. The search committee is the department governance committee plus the senior subject specialist (or nearest offer, in areas where we really only have one person and someone has already left). It's about 10 people. The screening committee is the senior subject specialist and a couple of other people, usually also close to the field. So in letter/initial package, you get to impress the experts, who pick out the people that the search committee will meet with at MLA and then maybe invite to campus. It's at the interviews that you have to talk to people who don't know your area, and explain why they should be interested.

  6. Dame Eleanor, That's really interesting! It seems like it would get to candidates in interesting ways. Do you ever get times when the senior person's personal quirks are a problem?

  7. Since I have never served on a screening committee, only on search committees, I am not actually in a position to know this. We always seem to get a very well-qualified and personable set of people to interview, so I don't think too much damage has been done. Perhaps we're just not quirky enough, as a group.